Despite unanimous opposition from Community Board 7 and Borough President Helen Marshall, the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals on Tuesday unanimously approved an oversized building for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Flushing.
The Mormon church wants to build a two-story house of worship at 145-15 33 Road with 55 underground parking spaces and a nine-story steeple in a mostly residential community. The project is almost twice the size permitted under the R2-A zoning.
Earlier this year, both CB 7 and the borough president rejected the plans, saying it would be out of character and scale with the surrounding residential area. Marshall also suggested church officials consider building a larger chapel at the group’s present location, 144-27 Sanford Ave., which would allow making that building 10 times bigger than what is allowed at the proposed site.
State Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) has been championing neighborhood groups against the project. While a city councilman, he was instrumental in downzoning the area in 2009.
Contacted in Albany on Wednesday, Avella said he was not surprised by the BSA’s decision. “That’s why I call it public enemy number 1,” Avella said. “The decision undermines everything we’ve done to downzone.”
The senator said he will investigate filing an Article 78 against the BSA. Such a lawsuit can be filed against decisions made by a city or state agency in the New York courts. Paul Graziano of Flushing, a zoning consultant, believes the case can be won.
He indicated such action will cost up to $20,000 but that he has reached out to area civic groups who have promised to contribute. “We have 90 days to file,” Graziano added, “so that would be until the middle of October.”
Such a lawsuit would delay construction. Mormon spokesman Ahmad Corbitt said a date for groundbreaking is yet to be determined, but he is elated over the decision. “The church applauds the BSA’s ruling. It affirms that the permit application and plans to build are within the law.” Corbitt said. “Nevertheless, welook forward to continued dialogue with our neighbors on ways to fit the coming meetinghouse comfortably into the neighborhood without sacrificing the church’s well-established worship needs. Members of the community have been open-minded and levelheaded in ongoing discussions in this regard.”
Chuck Apelian, chairman of CB 7’s Land Use Committee, said he was unhappy with the BSA decision. “Based on case law, the BSA may have had basis for their unanimous vote of approval, but based on the constant misrepresentations made by the LDS Church, I don’t believe there ever was a credible case,” Apelian said.
He and other members complained that the church kept changing the figures. “They made it clear they needed more classroom space,” he added, “about 1,500 square feet more, which we were OK with, but the numbers were always changing.”
In the end, the BSA is allowing the church 9,000 square feet for classrooms. “That is arbitrary and capricious,” Graziano said “and a good argument for an Article 78.”
Church officials said they needed 16 Bible study rooms, which Graziano said was way beyond their programmatic needs. According to Mormon tenet, 250 is the maximum congregation size and the Flushing group said there would never be more than 350 there.
In a letter to the BSA signed by CB 7 Chairman Gene Kelty, he wrote: “The entire variance has been driven by the combined occupancy of the main space in the building. If there is going to be a maximum number of congregants and 350 is significantly above and beyond the average that will be worshipping the vast majority of the time, why is a larger space needed?”
Tyler Cassell, a member of CB 7 and president of the North Flushing Civic Association, said he was not surprised at the ruling, but “I am somewhere between outraged and disappointed.”
Cassell said the BSA has “continually made bad decisions” over the years and “we have suffered the consequences while they go home to their safe homes.”
He asked how the BSA can disregard zoning protections from houses of worship and community facilities that are city law. “These laws were written to protect the character of our neighborhoods; now they are meaningless,” Cassell added.